29 October 2015

Does North American cultural history provide for a ‘third option’?

Cross-posted from Front Porch Republic and Solidarity Hall:

Having read several books on American history recently, including Colin Woodard’s book American Nations, itself based partly on David Hackett Fischer’s four-nation thesis in Albion’s Seed and sociologist William Graham Sumner’s thesis on American Folkways, there are several particularly interesting directions which open themselves up for discussion. Woodard’s treatment of American history as a series of ethno-national conflicts within and beneath the governments on the American continent is intriguing and in some ways highly appealing, particularly for those of us who value culture and those institutions which lie outside and under our current corporate-consumerist climate and partisan politics. Some of us may even want to nod along understandingly at Woodard’s invocation of ‘deep-seated preferences and attitudes’. At the same time, though, Woodard has an interest in tying his thesis directly into an analysis of American politics that never really quite translates, and as a result masks several blind spots.

The analysis of the nations themselves is easy enough to understand, and even defensible enough; the characterisations are compelling and in large part intuitive to the American imagination, even if, perhaps, a few of the particulars may be quibbled over. But part of the problem is that there are political currents on the governmental level which need to be explained in terms other than the ones he gives. Woodard expresses in the most vehement and polemical terms his hostility to the idea, for example, that there is anything in her Loyalist history which distinguishes Canadian from American society – and holds up instead the idea that Canadian society is better explained by a different configuration of dominant cultural-national strands (those of Midland America, New France and Yankeedom) than the coalitional confrontation that prevails in her southern neighbour (between Yankeedom and the Deep South). It’s a just-so story: the fact that it ‘just so’ happens to mesh perfectly with his thesis seems, well, a trifle suspect.

Woodard still has to confront that Canada does have a Loyalist history, and that that history still has some pull over the Canadian imagination, though that pull has been declining over the past thirty-five years or so. There is an ideal of peace, order and good government in Canada which is in some ways profoundly conservative, yet which opens itself up to considerations of social embeddedness and common good that have largely been the stock-and-trade of the political left. There has been, in short, a red Tory political option in Canada which gets relatively short shrift here. If we imagine, as Woodard does, that the ideological priorities of modern progressivism can be explained by a national-cultural alliance led by Yankeedom, and that those of modern movement conservatism are the result of an alliance led by the Deep South – what then explains this historical strand in Canadian politics?

Woodard states explicitly that the Loyalist emigration (mostly from the Midlands and from New Netherland) was motivated primarily by economic and political necessity, as well as by a British policy incentive of cheap land in Upper Canada to new settlers. Furthermore, he argues that the Loyalists lacked cultural cohesion – which seems to be something of a contradiction. One of the distinguishing marks of Midland culture is its pluralism, after all. Another tack he takes is the division between ‘true’ and ‘late’ Loyalists: this also doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny unless one subscribes to the myth that all the ‘true’ Loyalists were wealthy, since it seems the mark of the ‘late’ Loyalist was his poverty. The explanation of a Canadian national consciousness is never made particularly clear, and the answer to that question is begged. Is the red Tory option a natural cultural outgrowth, a political expression of Midland preferences and ideals? Is it something imposed from above, a kind of alien ideological conformity imprinted by the British Crown and an elite eager to retain its transatlantic ties? Or is it something else entirely?

Allow me to disclose some of my personal biases here. Reading Woodard’s book, I could not help but identify keenly with the postulated Midland culture. My cultural priorities have been shaped by the peace church tradition. I was brought up in a Mennonite church, alongside children of Midland expats from Goshen. Additionally, my paternal family tree partakes heavily of Quaker and immigrant radicalism. It would be personally gratifying, in a ‘nationalistic’ sense, to think that the Midland identity is robust enough to support its own, ‘third-option’ political programme. And I think there is some support for that idea. But the proposition of a ‘third option’ arising from the Midland folkway can’t be simply assumed for vanity’s sake, or for the sake of proving (or disproving) a thesis of cultural distinctiveness that undercuts national borders. This is how Woodard describes the Midlands:
Arguably the most ‘American’ of the nations… founded by English Quakers, who welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic.
There are elements of this that might explain some aspects of the red Tory ideal. The suspicion of ideology has always been a hallmark of the high Toryism from which many red Tory thinkers and statesmen from Sir John A. MacDonald onward have drunk deep. And the sympathy with which some red Tories have embraced non-Marxist ‘left’ economic theories like distributism and social credit might indicate a certain affinity with the communitarian utopianism of the English Quakers. And one might even argue that the red Tory affinity for government presence in the national life has been relatively selective, though the markedly unenthusiastic response of Ron Dart to the use of the term ‘red Toryism’ by Phillip Blond would indicate that Canadian conservatives have historically been more amenable to government interventions in economic life than even their British conservative counterparts have been, let alone their American ones.

The Loyalist option was drummed out of existence in the Thirteen through force of arms, being displaced by the ideologies of Hamilton, Jefferson and (later) Jackson. But it is possible that some remnants, some fragments and echoes of the Loyalist idea have been carried within the Quaker and German immigrant culture that spread out in a narrow band to the west until it reached the Great Plains. The radical movement which encompassed the Greenback Party, the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, though by no means monarchical in any way, shape or form, still nevertheless carried about it more than a little of the old high-Tory moralism. It stood firmly on the idea that government should not be run for the benefit of the mercantile interests of the Northeast nor for the benefit of the plantation owners of the Southeast. Neither were they particularly bedazzled by the rugged individualist mythos of Andrew Jackson preferred in his native Appalachia, being attracted instead to cooperative self-help. They represented a true ‘third option’ in American politics.

The Greenback Party grew in the wake of the Civil War out of the theories put forward by New York City dry-goods merchant Edward Kellogg in his book Labour and Other Capital, and in various other venues under the anagrammatic pseudonym Godek Gardwell. But interestingly enough, enthusiasm for his monetary ideas was most ardent in places like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania – exactly along the narrow belt which Woodard points to as the Western passage of expansion of the Midland ‘nation’. So much so, in fact, that using greenbacks – the paper currency that had been issued by the government, rather than by a private bank, during the Civil War – to forgive farmers’ debts to the banks, came to be called the ‘Ohio idea.’ The Greenback Party itself was founded in Indianapolis, and to an intriguing extent, it represented the old Loyalist alliance between New York City businessmen and Midland farmers. The two most visible proponents of Greenback theories in the 1870’s were native New York inventor Peter Cooper (no relation to yours truly) and congressman Samuel F. Cary of Cincinnati, Ohio.

After the Greenback Party collapsed in the 1880’s, Kellogg’s monetary ideas hopscotched into the nascent Farmers’ Alliance, which was busily making inroads amongst poor farmers of the Appalachian interior, who were then fleeing into Texas from permanent debt-servitude to the furnishing merchants of the coastal Deep South. Once again latching onto ideas of self-help through farmers’ and consumers’ cooperatives, they met with limited success – largely because vanishingly few commercial banks (North or South) would lend to them, seeing more profit in siding with the furnishing merchants. They began to understand that their livelihoods and their self-determination stood or fell on national economic and monetary policies which would discipline usurers large and small – and so the ideas of Kellogg and the veteran greenbackers of New York City, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana began to spread westward.

But Alliance Populism – though it took root solidly amongst poor whites and poor blacks both in the Deep South and throughout Appalachia toward the end of the 1880’s – retained a firm base of support in the West. The states which most reliably supported local Alliances, which sent itinerant lecturers into the Deep South to organise, and which stood by the comprehensive Omaha Platform of 1892 even as the People’s Party’s own statesmen were busy selling them out to the Democrats for short-term electoral gain, were North Dakota, Kansas and northern Texas – all of which are very notably represented in Woodard’s geographical description of the Midlands.

This strand of American history rather stands witness against Woodard’s description of the Midlands as quiescent, ‘moderate, even apathetic,’ and the holder of the key ‘swing vote,’ as though it could not be home to independent political ideas of its own! On the contrary, both the Quaker folkway and the achtundvierziger immigrants newly-transplanted from revolutionary central Europe gave articulation to a political tradition that was radical, populist and amenable neither to bland financial-corporate Yankee liberalism, nor to crassly avaricious oligarchical Deep Southern rapine. It certainly did not acquiesce quietly to the demands of the ‘progressive society.’ It is no accident at all, and certainly no surprise, that thinkers of a certain radical Tory persuasion in Britain – thinkers like G. K. Chesterton, A. J. Penty, A. R. Orage and Major C. H. Douglas – picked up on some of these ideas, and some of this anti-usury activism, that had gestated in the formerly-Loyalist regions of America. Naturally, they drew them up in specifically British forms. Further, it is no accident that half a generation later, on the plains frontier of the Canadian West, the ideas of Major Douglas would give rise to a relatively-successful social-credit movement. Domestically, in the state of Nebraska, the populist idea would find a full-throated advocate in the critical student of Marx and Freud, and brilliant historian, Christopher Lasch.

The utopian, radical Quaker potentials of Middle American society have unfortunately undergone something of a dormancy in recent years, just as the red Tory ideal has to our north. If at least part of Woodard’s thesis is correct, though, and American folkways are still present even under a homogenising globally-minded consumerism, then perhaps there is reason to hope that we haven’t yet heard the last of Midwestern populism.

25 October 2015

The original New England

This is actually a really cool bit of history.

And it does shed some interesting light on the Crimea that may run against the grain for a fair number of observers. Byzantine Greece was, at one point in England’s history, a welcoming landing-site for English refugees from the Norman conquest, and the Crimea in particular was host to towns with names like Susaco, Londina and Vagropolis. And this came about because the Saxon adventurers under Sigurðr of Gloucester had heard that Constantinople was under siege, and made haste to come to the martial aid of the Byzantine Emperor. At this point, of course, one good turn deserved another: Sigurðr and his men were welcomed into the Varangian Guard, and were apparently given land to colonise on the Crimea.

It seems rather ironic, then, that in the 19th century, the British Empire would, on that very same ground, be fighting against the Byzantine Greeks and the Russians who had done her exiled subjects this good turn. Further adding to the irony, it would be doing so alongside the selfsame French and Normans (by that time, of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia) who had made life for the Saxon inhabitants of Britain such a misery in the 11th that they had to set out to sea in the first place.

24 October 2015

Continuities in anti-Semitic and anti-Arab prejudice

In the current squabbles over Israel, two arguments are often put forward: one by activist supporters of Palestine to ward off allegations of anti-Semitism (most groundless, a few not), and the other by their pro-Israel detractors who want the label to stick. The first argument is that because Arabs are also an ethnically and linguistically Semitic people, it would be ludicrous and a self-contradiction to accuse their supporters of being anti-Semitic. The response to this, as indicated here from a leftist perspective by Owen Jones, is that those who argue this way are guilty of a fallacious appeal to etymology. Anti-Semitism has the clear meaning, Jones argues, of racial animus toward Jews in particular – and has done so for generations. And as far as Jones’s narrow argument goes, that’s fine. But I cannot help but wonder if there is a deeper connexion, at least in terms of content if not overlap with those who profess it, between anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitic prejudice that goes beyond mere wordplay.

Let’s think for a moment of what anti-Semitism actually means, and how Jews are attacked through it. It is a prejudice which clearly operates on a number of different levels. It is, in the first incidence, a form of religious prejudice against the adherents of the Jewish religion. Subsequently it is a cultural prejudice against those who identify with the Jewish culture. It is also a form of political prejudice against Jews as a class or Jews as a political bloc, and a racial prejudice against Jews as an ethnicity. There are several key distinguishing features of anti-Jewish animus, in particular the blood libel and the idea of the worldwide Jewish cabal. The stereotypes of the Jew are as a secretive, untrustworthy, seditious plotter; as a physically-cowardly sexual degenerate with pronounced and degrading appetites; as a swarthy, greasy, hook-nosed, bearded con man. In anti-Semitic literature, the Jews are responsible for crime and revolutionary violence, for the excesses of both capitalism and communism, and are never to be trusted because their loyalty lies first with their religious customs and not with their nation.

In the Western imagination, with the benefit of hindsight from the Second World War, it is easy to see how ugly and destructive these stereotypes are. But the ease with which anti-Semitic canards have ‘translated’ into canards against Arabs, is generally ignored. Owen Jones’s facile dismissal of the links between anti-Semitism and anti-Arab sentiment as mere wordplay ignores a great deal of history, and a long line of stereotypes against Arabs in particular. The religious prejudice bleeds over into Islamophobia, which I have discussed elsewhere, though not all Arabs are Muslim, and vice versa. But still, anti-Arab prejudice has a very marked similarity to anti-Semitic prejudice even on its face. According to anti-Arab stereotypes of the ‘billionaires, bombers and belly-dancers’ rubric, the Arab is also a secretive, untrustworthy, seditious plotter; a physically-cowardly sexual degenerate with pronounced and degrading appetites; and a swarthy, greasy, hook-nosed, bearded con man; responsible for crime and revolutionary violence (though the terminology has been upgraded to ‘terrorism’); and holding a stronger loyalty to his religious customs than to the nation he finds himself in. Where have we seen all of this before?

Memories have shortened since the attacks of 11 September 2001, but the canard of the ‘Arab cabal’ was prominent in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent crises in the Middle East which impacted American oil prices and politics. This dovetails with the canard of the ‘Jewish cabal’ in a way which is simply too convenient to be coincidental. And the recent episode in which Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to blame the Shoah on the Palestinians rather than on the Nazis was not only bad history. It was not only an attempt to partially absolve the Germans of the horrors of genocide, and thus give credence to one of the core claims of Holocaust denial: that the Nazis never intentionally set out to murder the Jews. It was, in point of fact, a form of blood libel: it was a ploy to blame a domestic scapegoat for crimes against the Jewish people and religion, to implicate the present-day Palestinians as willing participants in a vast human sacrifice.

Yes, there is very much a continuity between anti-Semitism and anti-Arab prejudice, regardless of the actors who now give voice to each. We know already the tragic and horrific consequences of continuing to play with this sort of fire, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from playing with it.

18 October 2015

‘Primitive and irrational’ – autopsy of a social dogma

Cross-posted from Oriental Review and Solidarity Hall:

Romanian-British historian Dr. David Mitrany’s 1950 book, Marx Against the Peasant: a Study in Social Dogmatism, is a pleasant surprise in a number of ways. For one thing, it is prescient in ways one wouldn’t normally suspect. In 1950, Europe was struggling in the midst of political division, poverty and wrack. The Marshall Plan for Europe’s reconstruction had only just been implemented two years earlier, and the Soviet Union’s political influence loomed large in the east. The world was caught between two huge superpowers, the one liberal and the other communist, and the intellectual world was likewise polarised between them. As Dr. Mitrany himself puts forth in the book’s preface: ‘Nowadays it is taken for granted that a story which has anything to do with communism or Soviet Russia must be either a panegyric or an attack. I can only hope that this story will not be read in that mood.’ Thankfully, even though the author himself tends toward a kind of liberal idealism at certain junctures, his work stands on its own as a ‘non-aligned’ view.

Secondly, Mitrany’s voice begins to deliberately echo that of Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong, whose contemporary studies of the Chinese peasantry I have reviewed here previously, as well as foreshadowing certain insights of E.F. Schumacher. His central argument, that left to its own devices – and not subjected to political violence or interference from the towns – the economy of the smallholder peasantry is in fact healthy and durable. He suggests that the Marxist (and, by extension also, the liberal-capitalist) view of the peasant as reactionary, backward, poverty-mired, stupid, ‘primitive and irrational’ has been falsified by the interwar history of the nascent peasant politics of eastern Europe. He argues convincingly that democratic-socialist parties throughout eastern Europe wrote their own suicide notes by despising and ignoring the traditional smallholder peasantry; and that the success of Leninist parties, first in Russia and later throughout eastern Europe, demonstrates more aptly the willingness of Leninism to tactically jettison key elements of Marxist theory than it does the strength of Marxist theory itself. And he points rather sorrowfully to the unfulfilled promise of peasant populism in the East, crushed first under fascist and then under communist heels.

This book is fairly narrow in scope; it does not look very far beyond the band of nations sandwiched between Germany, Austria, Italy and the Soviet Union. Also, it is organised thematically rather than chronologically, which makes some of the major historical threads, on occasion, difficult to follow. Additionally, his treatments of the peasant parties’ reactions and resistance against fascism are tantalising, and, if further explored, would go a long way toward dismissing the (sadly still-extant) canard that eastern European populism was amenable to reactionary military dictatorships. But even considering these limitations, the book is an immensely interesting one. Dr. Mitrany explores four themes: the ideological tension between Marxism and populism; the Marxist victory and political programme in Russia; the populist reaction in the neighbouring countries; and the subsequent establishments of fascist and Soviet-satellite dictatorships.

Is big beautiful?

Karl Marx, seeing history deterministically in stages and noting the (in many cases forced) mass migration from country to town that was involved in the capitalist transition, set his face firmly against the peasant masses. Taking as his model the French Revolutionary drive to bring ‘cheap bread’ into the towns, he celebrated the capitalist advances in enclosing the commons and in consolidating free smallholdings into massive monocultural cereal and cash-crop plantations. Furthermore, capitalism, Marx believed, had ‘rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life’. The peasant, isolated and bound by tradition to his own soil, had no propensity for revolutionary change. With the arrival of so many erstwhile smallholders, now robbed of their lands, into the towns, the foundations were laid for the collective class-consciousness of a nascent proletariat. For Marx, in other words, big was beautiful – because under the prevailing conditions in the West, the town was ascendant, and the country was to be valued only for feeding the towns at the lowest possible cost.

It should be noted here that both the liberals and the Marxists took this line of argument. Using the experience of Western Europe as an empirical guide, they argued that the peasantry as a class had to be abolished – and replaced with large-scale capitalist farmers. Following Marx, Engels, Liebknecht and Kautsky, the socialists spurned political cooperation with the peasants. Liberal capitalists like Russia’s Ivan Vernadsky and Boris Chicherin, and Romania’s Ștefan Zeletin, saw the peasant as hopelessly backward, reactionary and incapable of self-improvement or self-government; and (in Zeletin’s case) forthrightly advocated the ‘economic theft’ of peasant income to build up a centralised national capital.

So far went the ‘scientific’ analysis. But different conditions prevailed in the East, where serfdom and sharecropping had held out until very late dates, and where the peasant in bondage was beginning to develop a class consciousness independent of the towns. Marxist analysis, when imported onto Russian soil, began to flounder. In a society without a bourgeoisie, without a proletariat, to whom were the Marxist doctrines meant to be relevant? And given the vastly different face of oppression and exploitation, was Marxism any improvement at all on what the peasants already suffered under the large landowners? Dr. Mitrany here makes a very interesting distinction which runs against the grain of many Russia analysts today (myself, on occasion, included): he sees the fundamental ideological fault-line, not as between westernisers and Slavophils, but as between pro-peasant elements and anti-peasant ones. The populists, or narodniki, in Dr. Mitrany’s view, shared the same concerns for the peasantry as the Slavophils did; whilst aligned against them both were the liberal capitalists and the Marxists. In short, populist radicalism sought to create a society of free-and-equal peasants, taking (as did the Slavophils) the traditional Russian small collective farm, the mir or obshchina, as the ideal basis. Russian society, because of the unique and ancient customs of land tenure and family structure examined by von Haxthausen, would not need to suffer an expropriating capitalist transition before a just society would develop.

Dr. Mitrany makes it clear that the impact of the Slavophilism of Aleksey Khomyakov, and the populism of Aleksandr Herzen, did not stop at the border of Russia. The ideological battle on the Left between proletarian Marxism and peasant populism raged across an eastern Europe which in many respects looked similar in social makeup to Russia. But at this stage, when serfdom had but recently been abolished and the large land-holdings had not yet been broken up, these battles were for the most part theoretical. It would be left until the revolution in Russia to determine what the practical face of each movement would look like.

You can’t start the revolution without us

Dr. Mitrany very deftly manages to explode the fiction, popular nowadays in Western Europe and America, that the communists were die-hard intransigents in their Marxism, committed to violent political revolution; whereas the ‘democratic’ socialists and the social-democrats were less doctrinaire in their Marxism, more eager to compromise, more reluctant to resort to political or military force to achieve political ends. The portrait he paints of the Russian communists, rather, starting with Lenin, is that they were politically savvy and ready to jettison bits of Marxist doctrine that were tactically inconvenient when it suited their purposes.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for example, not only continued Stolypin’s conservative reforms of Russian land tenure, but also introduced, as a means to cajole the peasantry into adhering to the mass line, a New Economic Policy which guaranteed – at least on paper – individual land tenure for the peasants that wanted it, and the freedom to sell their surplus produce on the markets. Lenin repeatedly cautioned against using overt force against the peasantry; instead, the beginnings of farm collectivisation under Lenin were accomplished by a mixture of underhanded political tricks and overt political advertisement of the benefits of mechanical collective farming. Some of the tactical concessions to the peasantry, for example the semi-privatised kolkhoz farm tenure, had the dual benefit of assuaging fears of expropriation (and thus removing a potential political threat) and nudging peasants toward more comprehensive forms of collective tenure.

On the contrary, it was the Mensheviks and Plekhanov – and later Trotsky – who objected in the strongest terms to Lenin’s ‘deviation’ from Marxist doctrine, and accused him of ‘favouring the kulak’ in his economic plans. In the end, the line that Stalin followed with regard to the peasant concurred with Trotsky’s: he reversed the New Economic Policy and instituted a régime of forced collectivisation. Dr. Mitrany is careful to note, however, that Lenin differed from the Mensheviks, Trotsky and Stalin only on the matter of tactics. The end goal was always the same: to retain the support of the peasantry long enough to establish an independent proletarian political presence, then to ‘neutralise’ the peasant as a reactionary force, and finally to institute large-scale mechanised agriculture through the collectives, for the benefit of the proletarian revolution. However, the intransigence of the democratic socialists in defence of a pure ideological Marxism would be a theme that repeated itself over and over in the interwar years, and not only in Russia.

Lenin took the tack that he did, in large part because he understood that in Russia, any revolutionary fervour would come first from the rural peasantry! Only such a ‘deviant’ Marxism would have met with any success in a Russian context in the first place – he truly couldn’t have won the Russian Revolution without peasant support. With the proletarian vanguard as weak as it was, Lenin had little choice but to adopt the tactics of suasion with the rural revolutionaries. The Leninist play-book was first and foremost to co-opt and harness that populist radicalism, but keep it under tight enough control that it would serve proletarian, communist ends. However, once the Bolsheviks had been lifted to the ‘commanding heights’ of the Russian economy, as Dr. Mitrany asserts, on the backs of the toiling former serfs, they had no compunctions against using the brute force of law against those same former serfs to achieve their political and economic ambitions.

The green rising

But the Russian Revolution, in concert with the Great War, had an unintended side-effect. The independent nations all along the Russian border began breaking up the large landed estates and latifundia, and dividing up the land amongst the peasants who had been farming it all along. In part, this was done tactically to stave off a peasant revolt. But it also proved necessary for economic reasons to complete the emancipation of serfs which had begun half a century before. The immediate effects of this redistribution, from a top-down macroeconomic standpoint, looked like stagnation: government funds were drying up, trade was tapering off and capital investment in the towns was grinding to a juddering halt. However, on a microeconomic scale, the reforms were highly beneficial for the mass of the people, who now found themselves more secure, better-fed and with more leisure time to rebuild infrastructure and educate themselves. Though they stood in rags, at least they now stood on their feet.

With more food, better education and a sudden importance in national affairs as the main provider of food to the towns, the smallholding peasant developed a political consciousness in very rapid order, and the doctrine that appealed most to him was that of populism. The thought of Khomyakov, Kireevsky, Herzen and Mikhailovsky, had found ready adherents even as that thought was being attacked in its own homeland. They were equally sceptical of involuntary collectivism and of the self-serving individualism of the towns – they were neither, in short, communist nor capitalist. As their political consciousness began to grow, they began to understand the need for security in their own holdings, over-against both a mercantilist state and a cartel of banking interests. Contra those observers who hold Russian and American forms of populism to be fundamentally dissimilar, Dr. Mitrany notes that the Eastern European populists – much like their American counterparts – sought a distinctive remedy in the ‘co-operative society’: collective bargaining through producers’ co-operatives, as well as collective financing through credit co-operatives. Individual smallholders sought to bolster their position through ‘technical, financial and commercial, and also insurance arrangements … intended to secure to [themselves] the benefits of large-scale farming’, though with the end goal in mind of a basic level of village self-sufficiency, and not a concentration of capital and political power in the town.

Even though the strong attachment to the land meant that political consciousness amongst the peasantry would inevitably mean an equally strong national consciousness, Dr. Mitrany (good international-relations idealist that he is) is very careful to note that, in a ‘paradoxical’ twist, these co-operative arrangements transcended national borders. They linked Bulgarian, Romanian, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak rural labourers together in a proto-internationalist network. A Green International was even established as an information clearing-house for peasant political parties, with the explicit goal of advocating for peace between its constituent nations. But here the practice of populist peasant politics did not arise out of an abstract doctrine, as had Marxism and the Socialist International. As with the People’s Party in 1880’s and 1890’s America, the practice of smallholder farming and the self-tutelage that came through a lived appraisal of their problems came first; political consciousness came afterward, through and because of the co-operatives.

In come the jackboots

The tale of the ‘green rising’, however, was cut short by a dramatic rise in far-right politics that corresponded with the Great Depression in the West. The peasants now found themselves being wooed with the romantic nationalism of the far-right; when that by and large failed to garner support, they were bludgeoned with its political violence. ‘In the East the peasant masses … solidified into a radical movement. Their groups and parties formed the main barrier against the dictatorial trend and, therefore, also its chief butt and victim.’ Right-wing bourgeois and military movements always raised their hue and cry against the Bolsheviks, but as Dr. Mitrany notes, the first victims of fascist political murders in eastern Europe were instead the leaders of the peasant parties, such as Virgil Madgearu in Romania and Aleksandar Stamboliyski in Bulgaria. Throughout the Second World War, the peasant parties in the East were largely forced underground or into a temporary détente with the communists.

Once the smoke had cleared, however, the same ideological battle that had raged in Russia between the populists and the Marxists began again in earnest, and rather than join a popular front against the communists, the democratic socialists once again showed their true colours by joining with the communists – this time driving the peasants under the left boot instead of the right. In Czechoslovakia the socialists took the initiative in banning the populist RSZML outright; in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria several attempts at a popular front were organised, but in the end the socialist parties were all either cajoled or forced into banning populist statesmen from office and populist parties from government.

All this had been done, it should be noted, out of a doctrinaire Marxist belief that the peasant was an intractably reactionary force in public life. This belief was actually slightly more flexible in practice amongst the communists under the tutelage of Lenin, who were willing to (temporarily, and always with the goal of urban industrial-collectivist utopia in mind) use the peasants as political pawns. The socialists, on the other hand, wanted a full embrace of the Western model of capitalist agrarian and industrial development, and set their faces rigidly against the populist parties who proclaimed that model unsuitable for the East.

What now?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (hardly an eventuality at all foreseen by Dr. Mitrany in 1950), it now seems like the unanswered populist challenge continues to hover over the political realities of many places – in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America as well as in Europe. The agrarian question continues to plague economic thinkers and specialists throughout the developing world, though we are beginning to see some heartening signs of an emerging populist and distributist resistance to the assumption that ‘big is beautiful’. The Russian government, to give just one example, has taken some interesting steps toward rebuilding a smallholder agrarian economy, and recent economic events have gone some way toward encouraging that trend as well.

Dr. Mitrany’s work is still a valuable resource after 65 years, more than anything as a wayfarer’s cairn indicating where eastern Europe has been – and where it has not yet been. Though his main concern with this text is debunking a specific agrarian ‘social dogma’ within Marxism vis-à-vis populism, it is interesting to note that he leaves the populist question wide open. Far from being a failure, the path of smallholder agriculture and co-operation suggested by the ‘green rising’ in its infancy has yet to be truly explored. Though the current reviewer lacks some of Dr. Mitrany’s idealist convictions, this many-faceted work of economic history is particularly refreshing to see, and comes highly recommended.

17 October 2015

In defence of Iranian civilisation

Iran is one of the world’s great and enduring civilisations, with which we unfortunately have a long-standing misunderstanding. Several, actually. One of the few things for which I give President Obama a great deal of credit is the Iran deal which will hopefully put an end to the sanctions regime we have been under for the past twenty years. It is an absurdity, a long-standing farce, that our society in its arrogance should seek to hold Iran to a standard to which America does not hold herself. It is a crime that we should ignore the great debts Americans owe to Iranian civilisation. And – whether you like it or dislike it – it is the very height of folly to believe that the Iranian government is any more irrational than any other government when it comes to foreign policy, national defence and military action. Certainly no more irrational than our own is!

It is sad indeed that, blinded by Zionist nationalism, so many of us in America have forgotten that without the intercession of the Iranian monarch Cyrus the Great, there would not have been a Jewish nation, because there would never have been a Second Temple. Cyrus liberated us from our Babylonian bondage and even gave us the funds to rebuild in the Holy Land. The fullest expositor of monotheism outside the Israelite prophetic tradition was Zoroaster: the first prophet to proclaim a single God, transcendent, without form and not contingent upon history or culture, and the first prophet to proclaim truth, beauty and goodness as transcendent ideals, outside of historical or cultural constraints. Needless to say, the monotheism of the Iranians left an indelible mark on the Israelite prophetic tradition.

The friendship between the Jews and the Persians would continue with the marriage between Esther and Ahasuerus (a.k.a. Xerxes the Great), and it is solely on account of Esther’s boldness and Xerxes’s love for his wife that the Jewish people still exist today. When Christ Our God was born, the first men to see and adore him after his birth were the Magi of the East – and the Magi, of course, were Iranian Zoroastrian priests, whose cosmopolitanism is still reflected in the modern makeup of the Iranian nation. The Iranian son of Prince Anak Pahlavi, known to history as Saint Gregory Photistes, was tortured and imprisoned for fourteen years by the mad King Tiridates III for his Christian faith, and eventually cured Tiridates of his madness, baptised him, and with him baptised the first nation to wholly embrace Christendom – Armenia.

Zoroastrian theology left its imprint, moreover, upon all Greek philosophy subsequent to Pythagoras. Before that, the Greeks had no concept of the unity of the cosmos, nor of the oneness and formlessness of God which would be the hallmark of Platonist and Aristotelian thinking. That all too many of our classicists persist in identifying the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids as barbaric, or even more laughably tyrannical, merely because two of their emperors (Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great) opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded foreign policy is nothing more or less than a reflection of their dependence on that government’s own propaganda. Socrates also opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded religious policy, to his death; would these same classicists render him also a barbarian?

Speaking of Greece and Iran, the division of polities into the ideal types of Occidental republics as opposed to Oriental despotisms, having its roots in Aristotle, has sadly long outlived its usefulness. However, thanks to Machiavelli, his followers in the Whig-historical school of Edward Gibbon, and the dialectical-materialist historiography of Karl Marx, the concept of the ‘Oriental despotism’ of which Iran has always been the prototype has sadly stayed with us.

The Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov came somewhat closer to the truth when he looked to the dual nature of the Orient, and described Iranian civilisation as being marked by the principle of spiritual and creative freedom. For Iranian Oriental civilisation, in Khomyakov’s view, the person comes prior to her limitations. Khomyakov’s Iran is monotheist, organically ordered, personalist and communitarian. It prefers the arts of poetry and song, the written and the spoken word, the breath by which persons express their spiritual state and come into free agreement with others. This Khomyakov contrasted with the ‘Kushite’ Orient, which is polytheistic or animistic, limited in humanist resources, and ordered in artificial systems. Kushite cultures are marked by the a priori of necessity, of the awareness of bodily limitations, of violence – and they express themselves in monument and sculpture, in grandiose architecture. The conflict between Cyrus’s Persia and Nabonidus’s Babylon was the archetypical confrontation between Iranian and Kushite principles.

Iran is thus a massive, yet largely and sadly unregarded, philosophical and theological wellspring for the West – and always has been. Even where the Greeks wanted to assert their independence from Iran, they nonetheless regarded her with admiration and respect. Aristotle cannot be made to shoulder all the blame for the modernist cultural chauvinism we have inherited from Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu, Mill, Hegel and Marx, who have always regarded the ‘Orient’ as inferior, and who have despised the native rural-agrarian basis of Iranian civilisation. It is this cultural chauvinism, sadly, which is still driving so much of our policy toward Iran and the countries around her, and it is a bad habit we need very much to break.

10 October 2015

New blog address

Dear gentle readers,

This is just a brief announcement; though if you are reading it here, chances are that you already know what it entails. I have shut down my previous Blogger account and switched over to a new one. Because I am, unfortunately, quite lazy about updates, I have yet to get around to doing the kind of drastic housekeeping that involves, for example, rebuilding my blogroll. So if you are the author of one of the blogs on my sidebar, please be patient and please don’t be offended; believe me, it’s nothing personal against you! And I will get around to rebuilding my blog one piece at a time.

To my Facebook audience: all links prior to my post on the dangers of money will no longer work. If you click the link, make sure to replace ‘existentialmusingsofmatt’ in the URL with ‘heavyangloorthodox’. My apologies for the inconvenience!

07 October 2015

Squalid and horrid

Of course, I’m a not-entirely-dispassionate outside observer, and my opinions may therefore be taken with the requisite dosage of salt, in whatever form you prefer. But if the Tories want to avoid in the future being permanently marked as the ‘nasty party’, it strikes me - just a wild hunch on my part, you understand - that among the more effective ways of going about shedding that reputation would be, perhaps, to consider not saying and doing nasty, despicable and hypocritical things. And no, I am not talking about porking pork; I am talking about this:
Jon Snow: Now, you’ve been asked to intercede with the Saudis over the 17-year-old boy who was arrested when he was 14, and who faces execution and crucifixion. Have you?

David Cameron: We have raised this as a government, yes.

JS: Have you personally?

DC: I--no, the foreign secretary has raised this. The embassy has raised this. We raised this in the proper way. I’ll look to see if there’s an opportunity for me to raise it as well. But we oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere, and we make that clear in all our international contacts.

JS: Well, but that’s curious because we in November did a deal with the Saudis, that we would back them joining the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, providing they backed us. Now this sounds a bit squalid for one of the most human rights abusing régimes on earth.

DC: Well, Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations, but we completely disagree with them.

JS: Well, why did you want them inside the Human Rights--

DC: We completely disagree with them about, uh, their punishment routines, about the death penalty, about those issues.

JS: Well, why did you do this deal, then? I mean, they’re not the right sort of people to be doing any sort of a deal on human rights!

DC: We totally oppose their record in that area.

JS: Why did we do it?

DC: I said, we totally oppose their record.

JS: No, but why did we do it?

DC: Sorry, I’ve answered the question.

JS: Well, that isn’t an answer, is it? I mean, we’ve done a horrid deal. It was very well-exposed in the Financial Times!

DC: We--we have a relationship with Saudi Arabia, and if you want to know why I’ll tell you why. It’s because we receive from them important security and intelligence information that keep us safe.
Now, I tend toward the realist position over the idealist one. I would of course disagree with the assertion, because as several informed and respected realist IR theorists have stated (such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and, more forthrightly, Andrew Bacevich), neither the US nor Britain have any true interests at stake in Saudi anymore that would demand such a steady commitment or ‘relationship’ as this. But I would at least be able to respect Cameron’s position if he had come straight out and said, ‘look, we have national interests at stake in Saudi, and we ought to lay out our national resources and influence accordingly’. But what Cameron does instead makes him look, well, nasty.

I should hardly need to point out the galling hypocrisy of making a deal to let Saudi Arabia accede to the leadership of an organisation, purportedly founded to keep out egregious human-rights abusers: Saudi being a country with a ghastly human-rights record worse in some respects than North Korea’s, and a country which exports terrorism throughout the region and throughout the world. Hardly a power committed to keeping Britain safe! (Say what you will about North Korea: a state ideology like Juche, which shuns outside influence and advocates, at least in theory, total national self-reliance, understandably has very limited appeal outside its own borders.) But throwing out one’s chest about the UK’s commitment to human rights and opposition to the death penalty, and instantly following up by throwing up the chaff of ‘security and intelligence’ in defence of Saudi Arabia, indicates only one thing: that Cameron’s Conservatives truly do not deserve to be in control of any office more important than that of town dog-catcher.

One more thing: our country is equally guilty, if not more so, of nauseating and sickening levels of hypocrisy and sycophancy when the Saudis are involved. The more so since it seems to be only the realists in the room who advocate backing away from the Saudi ‘special relationship’; and the idealists, neocons and liberals (who, if they were consistent, ought to be the most thoroughly outraged by Saudi abuses) who keep fawning over them.

EDIT: And where did over three quarters of those 9/11 terrorists come from, Dave? Where did Osama bin Laden come from? Who is teaching intolerance in the Middle East, Dave? Who is funding the Wahhabi preaching of hate in Britain, Dave? Who is actively beheading your beloved ‘freedom, democracy and equality’ in the region? Here's a hint: it's that big angular-bordered country on the Arabian Peninsula with the sword-emblazoned green flag.

And who, precisely, is passively tolerating that, Dave? Not Jeremy Corbyn.

Shame on you, David William Donald Cameron. Shame. On. You.

05 October 2015

Against Islamophobia

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I can often come off as a sceptic of Islam, and particularly harsh on political Islam in particular. This isn’t anything new since I chrismated into Orthodoxy, mind you; I’d been just as critical of radical political Islam when I was still Episcopalian. However, I have very, very little patience for those who make their careers as professional and public-intellectual ‘critics of Islam’, and particularly those of the neoconservative, nativist and nouveau-atheist flavours. The reason I have so little patience for neocon, nativist and nu-atheist critics of Islam is that:
  1. they deliberately misrepresent the beliefs of millions of people;
  2. they fail to distinguish between beliefs and believers, which means that charges of racism and bigotry are often very rightly levelled at them; and
  3. it's obvious to those paying attention that the Islam-bashing, which plays well with xenophobes of all stripes, is tactical and that Christians are their real targets.
Because the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are sincere believers with conservative social and sexual ethics, who would not think of forcing others to convert to their faith, the criticisms of Islam as inherently violent or repressive or insincere (witness the blatant overuse and misuse of the term ‘taqiya’ by people who don't understand either its right meaning or proper context) fall flat. Islam isn’t even uniquely violent or prone to terrorism. Radical political Hindus and Buddhists, when given the opportunity, prove themselves to be just as insanely violent and bloodthirsty as radical political Muslims.

In fact, as a Christian, all of these poorly-aimed criticisms only serve to make me sympathise more with the Muslims, so badly misrepresented in our popular culture. I commend and even endorse the counter-cultural and traditionalist ideals of modesty, continence, filial piety and obedience to an authority outside the atomised self which Islamic belief, at its best, tends to cultivate. A lot of the ‘cultural’ stuff, in short, which Bill Maher hates.

The real beef with Islam always was, and continues to be, theological. It is a radical offshoot of the Christian heresy of Arianism. Its Unitarian theology comes straight from Muhammad’s associations with the Arian monk Bahira, and from this theology are derived Islam’s one-dimensional divine-command ethical system, its monochromatic anthropology, its thin social doctrines and its frustrated Messianic tendencies. All of these should be met with scepticism and scrutiny. However, the reason I tend to have more sympathy with Shi’a Islam is that, with the martyrdoms of Ali and Husayn, the frustrated Messianic tendencies in Shi’ism are much more muted. Shi’ite thinkers have even developed highly-admirable strains of humanism and radicalism on behalf of the oppressed. Also, being more scholarly, existential and even mystical in its orientation, Shi’a Islam is, broadly speaking, capable of approaching these philosophical questions with somewhat greater clarity.

But any kind of belief that, on account of these theological or any other differences, Muslims should not be respected as human beings or treated with any kind of sincerity or hospitality, is utterly contemptible. The fact that Serbia, a Christian country which has had a long and very troubled past with Muslim invaders and partizans, has welcomed with open arms nearly 50,000 Syrian refugees of late, most of whom are Muslims, ought to put the rest of Europe, and us as well, to shame. (Also worthy of note: not one Gulf state has welcomed a single Syrian refugee.)

But beyond the obvious, what frustrates me most about the current anti-Islamic sentiment (whether neocon, nativist or nu-atheist) is that it is either rooted in tribalist animus, or else it is guided by a kind of laïcist-nationalist extremism. The latter will inevitably turn its guns on the remaining vestiges of Christendom, tradition and monarchy when it is finished whipping up the masses against Islam. Not one theological point of any substance is put forward by these Islamophobes. Not one defence of Christianity as anything other than an ersatz of nationalism or tribalism. Not one erg of imagination for what might become a pluriculturalist, multi-polar world order – in which Islamic nations will assuredly have to play a significant part. Islamophobia is, unfortunately, real; it is also a mindset without a future.